Retailers jump on the bag-wagon

DEIRDRE KELLY

From Monday’s Globe and Mail

As fashion director of Yorkdale Shopping Centre, Robin Keeler has her pick of anything in the mall.

But these days her accessory du jour is made of water-resistant polypropylene and costs a few cents to make.

It’s also reusable, which means, if you will believe a die-hard fashionista like Keeler, it’s the last word in chic.

“I absolutely loove it,” enthuses Ms. Keeler of the reusable Browns’ shoe bag she keeps in her office next to her desk.

“It’s black and white – my colours – and timelessly elegant. I got it for free when I bought two pairs of shoes last spring, but I used it all summer, going back and forth to Muskoka, to carry all my shoes.”

“Being green is a lifestyle trend at this moment,” Ms. Keeler continues. “And when we carry reusable bags we are saying about ourselves, to the world at large, ‘I’m fashionable because I care, or more to the point, I care and so therefore I am fashionable.'”

The two now go bag-in-hand, as it were – so much so that a number of Canadian retailers have started to jump on the reusable bag bandwagon, aware that the reusable totes are not just carrying groceries these days – especially in Toronto where a ban on the plastic disposables has been in effect since June – but a whole lot more in terms of corporate responsibility and insight into what today’s consumers really want.

“To me it’s an amazing marketing tool,” says Brown’s spokeswoman Annie Cohen. “People are going to reuse them. They’re walking around the streets with them, so it’s good for everybody – good for the environment, good for the customer, good for us.”

For a company like Sears, the reusable bags it has been selling since March, in the lead-up to Earth Day, are also like walking boards, conveying to the customer new and improved information about the corporation as an environmentally conscious, if not altogether forward-thinking, enterprise.

Unlike the blue, thin, handle-less, all-purpose plastic jobbies that have served as the company’s rather tired public face for years, the new reusable bags are sleek and stylish, with shoulder straps to boot.

Made in China of more than 50-per-cent recyclable materials, they depict a fresh image of a bamboo tree against a neutral cream background. The tagline reads: “Being Green, one bag at a time.”

“I think it’s a good bag for the company,” says James Gray-Donald, associate vice-president and sustainability leader with Sears Canada.

“It communicates that Sears has a positive role to play in environmental change. It also says to younger Canadians that Sears has fashionable and eco-friendly options, which may be a surprise to them.”

And a welcome one, it seems. Since March, customers across the country have purchased about 250,000 of the reusable bags, even in locations where there isn’t a plastic bag ban, resulting in a 30- to 50-per-cent reduction in plastic bag use at store level.

Available in three different sizes – small, medium and large – and ranging in price from $0.79 to a $1.99, they cost just $0.10 to make.

All net proceeds from sales go to select Canadian charities, among them the World Wildlife Fund and the National Kids Cancer Ride, providing customers with an added incentive to buy a bag along with their other purchases.

“We wanted to make it easy for our customers to make the right choice and we felt that the bag with this look and feel was one step on this journey,” Mr. Gray-Donald says.

Similarly, Sobeys is using its reusable bags to push the brand in unexpected directions.

A Bag for Life, so-called because Sobeys will replace it free of charge if it falls apart – was introduced in 2006 and retails for $0.99 (Sobeys won’t disclose how much they cost to make).

To date, 8.5 million have been sold nationwide – enough that Sobeys has been able to create its own eco-conscious charity with the proceeds.

The Community Environment Fund, created recently in conjunction with Earth Day Canada, provides financial grants of up to $20,000 to support local environmental initiatives and projects in Ontario.

A similar program exists between Sobeys Quebec with Earth Day’s partner organization, Jour de la Terre.

“The decision to donate partial proceeds from reusable bags stems from our desire to encourage customers to reduce consumption of single-use bags,” says Sobeys spokeswoman Tracy Chisholm.

And customers are not only buying the bag, they’re buying the message: Sobeys reports plastic bag use within its stores is down 72 per cent.

Reusable bags are becoming so popular that retailers who don’t offer them are in risk of going the way of the disposables – that is, becoming socially unacceptable.

Says Mr. Gray-Donald, “Retailers who don’t do this aren’t feeling any negative consequences, yet. But public perception is steadily increasing as to what public companies, especially retailers, are doing vis-a-vis offering environmentally preferable products and improving the efficiency of their operations.”

Or put to put it more simply, if you’re a retailer and you don’t have a brand new bag, take it from Ms. Keeler: You’re so last season.

This is the message she is trying to send to retailers, where out of 240 stores, less than half have jumped to date on the reusable bag-wagon:

“They’ll have to catch up really quickly because reusable bags are the way of the future. They’re sustainable fashion. They’re a trend that, by necessity, will last.

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